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Four ways to tackle poverty in an era of austerity

According to the latest figures from the 2015 Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), the north west is home to the greatest proportion of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England. The data also reveals that despite being at the heart of the chancellor’s ‘northern powerhouse’ agenda, Manchester is England’s fifth most deprived local authority area and first for health and disability deprivation.

Manchester has seen some positive – albeit minor – improvements since 2010, with the city moving from the fourth to fifth most deprived local authority. But deprivation continues to remain entrenched within its neighbourhoods, with eight lower layer super output areas consistently remaining within the top 1% most deprived since 2004.

Clearly these results reveal that despite strong periods of economic growth, numerous policy initiatives and a gradual economic recovery, high levels of poverty remain entrenched and pervasive.

This presents a particularly concerning picture, which is likely to get worse as Greater Manchester is expected to make £285m of local government cuts this year on top of £1.2bn delivered since 2010. Local government spending across England was cut by more than a fifth over the previous parliament. However, these cuts have not been equally distributed. Local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation (on average) such as Manchester have seen the largest percentage cuts to their spending. The most deprived tenth of councils experienced spending cuts of 28% per person, while the tenth least deprived saw their spending cut by 16% per person.

Which begs the question, why have the most deprived local authorities experienced the largest cuts?

The answer lies in the fact that councils fund their spending through a mix of council tax revenues and grants from central government. As one would expect, the more deprived local authorities are much more dependent on central government grants, which have been cut by more than a third. So while the most deprived councils, on average, saw the same percentage of cuts to grants as the least deprived, due to their dependency on grants this resulted in greater cuts to their overall spending.

This paints a pretty bleak picture, so what’s to be done?

Despite the significant challenges facing councils, there are still a number of ways which local authorities can tackle poverty at the local level. As the austerity driven policy context means that poverty can no longer be addressed through special initiatives, places need to use their existing powers and relationships to collaborate and address the issue in a coordinated manner.

  1. Ensure the scale of the challenge is properly understood. The IMD provides an aggregate view of deprivation. However, by including and exploring a number of additional measures such as food and fuel poverty, local authorities and other key stakeholders can gain a broader insight into the level and multifaceted nature of deprivation within their communities to develop more bespoke and effective approaches to tackling poverty.
  2. Local authorities and other agencies still possess a significant level of power to put in place the leadership, assessments, policy, strategy and partnerships needed to address poverty locally. By working co-operatively with key actors and membership organisations such as the Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group, key stakeholders can pool their existing resources and expertise to tackle poverty across a broad spectrum of issues. Collaboration should also extend to the grass roots level by actively involving communities to co-produce unique solutions to poverty. This can be done by ensuring that public services are designed from an asset based approach through regular consultation.
  3. Procurement is another highly effective way for councils to use their purchasing power to support deprived communities by procuring locally to multiply spend and reinvest funding in the locality. This principle can also be extended to ‘poverty proof’ public strategies by assessing how services support and target those most in need and whether the views of those living in poverty have been considered within service design.
  4. Last but by no means least, local authorities, in partnership with key stakeholders and communities, must work together to create a collective, political and cultural acknowledgement that social growth and poverty prevention are as important as economic growth. This is essential in order to refute the current short term, austerity driven narrative, which fails to acknowledge the long-term impacts on communities and local authorities across England.

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